9 Iyar 5776
17 May, 2016
The Committee to Recognize the Heroism of Jewish Rescuers During the Holocaust
I wish to express my opinion on the ways that I believe we should recognize the national and public gratitude for Jews who displayed ultimate heroism in saving other Jews from the Holocaust during World War II.
The State of Israel is the Jewish People’s national home. The fate of the Jewish People, in the past, present and future, stands at the center of its existence as the national home of the Jewish People. Israel must give appropriate expression, in its legislation, official institutions and actions, to its approach to the key component of the fate of the Jewish People. In its past, since the destruction of the Holy Temple two thousand years ago, there has been no greater event, in scope and in significance, than the Holocaust that rampaged through Europe during World War II.
It goes without saying that Israel must give appropriate expression in its legislation, national institutions and conduct to the Holocaust period. Does the State of Israel give appropriate expression to all aspects of this dark period in Jewish history? This is a question to which the Israel must give itself and its citizens a full and convincing answer.
The full response is complex: there are aspects of the Holocaust period to which the State does, in fact, give appropriate response, but there are others that are not reflected at all in Israel’s legislation, official institutions and actions.
The State and the general public always express utmost and poignant respect towards the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, all together and, as much as possible, to each and every victim individually. Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day, Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center, the “Each of Us Has a Name” project and many other official, public and personal events, are all examples of appropriate responses towards the main aspect of the Holocaust.
Aside from this major aspect of the Holocaust period, several others are obvious and each one should be addressed individually and deserves to be expressed in an official and public manner. These aspects, the importance of which cannot be overstated, are all facets of the struggles that occured during World War II, against the Shoah and all those that initiated it.
Three examples of this are:
- Jewish efforts to save Jews from the enemy; perpetrators of the Holocaust;
- Non-Jewish efforts to save Jews from the enemy; perpetrators of the Holocaust;
- Jewish participation in the Allied forces, against Nazi Germany and its collaborators, and the contribution of these Jews to the victory in World War II, and in helping to end the war and the mass extermination during that time.
Of these three aspects, the second has received the most appropriate positive response. The third has received a marginal response, but I will not address it here. The first aspect has clearly not been given an appropriate response.
I believe that Israel should have established an official and public system of respectful and ongoing recognition for Jews who endangered their own lives –even to the brink of death – in the effort to save as many other Jews as possible under the circumstances. Israel should have established a parallel system to the commendable one established in appreciation of the Righteous Gentiles. There is an unacceptable difference between the attitude toward the Righteous Gentiles and toward the Jews for the dangerous and continuous efforts of both these groups, to save Jews from their enemies who sought to destroy them. In certain circumstances, a Jew and a non-Jew participated in the same rescue operation – planned together, risked their lives together, succeeded at what they set out to do – and Jews were saved thanks to them. It is inconceivable that we should be showing our appreciation to the non-Jew of the two, in many good ways, as we do to the Righteous Gentiles, while totally ignoring the role of Jews in those same heroic efforts. I believe that such a distinction is completely unethical.
I know of two attempts to justify this distinction. Neither can truly validate this difference in attitude between Jews and non-Jews in the context of efforts to save Jews. Let us consider these points, from the simpler to the more serious.
One attempt at justification points to the various projects undertaken by Yad Vashem to show appreciation to Jews who took part in dangerous rescue operations. This argument does not justify having an organized system of recognition and benefits to show appreciation to Righteous Gentiles, and the total lack of any organized system to show appreciation to Jewish rescuers. Why have an organized system, when a whole series of activities could be sufficient? Why does Israel not see such a series of activities as sufficient, but has established an organized system for the Righteous Gentiles?
If an organized system is necessary, giving official, honorable, fixed and prominent status to the honoring of the Righteous Gentiles, why must we be content with a few activities to honor Jewish rescuers, and not establish an organized system, that awards an official, honorable, fixed and prominent status, as befits, to the rescuers who were Jews?
Another attempt at justifying this situation is ethical, and seeks to justify the distinction between non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews and Jews who risked their lives to save Jews, based on the distinction between those who acted beyond the letter of the law, and had no obligation, and those who were fulfilling an obligation. According to this claim, Jews were obligated to save other Jews, as much as they were able to, but this was not the obligation of the non-Jews, and if they did that, then they are considered Righteous Gentiles and are worthy of special appreciation.
I do not accept this argument, because in my opinion, none of its assumptions are correct. First, I have read conversations with Righteous Gentiles who were asked why they did what they did, despite the dangers involved, and they responded in terms of a sense of obligation to act as they had done. Some believed that it was their obligation as devout Christians. Others claimed that their self-perception as Muslims (the Turkish Consul in Greece, for example) obligated them to act this way, and many others stated that because this was their obligation as moral human beings. I would not be surprised if most Righteous Gentiles turned out to have acted from a sense of obligation. Thus, I do not detract in any measure from the honor they deserve, nor from the official and public recognition that should be awarded them.
The Jew who risked his life to save another Jew, who acted from a sense of obligation to save his fellow Jews from those who sought to annihilate them, also deserves the same level of honor and appreciation. The question of whether these rescue efforts was fulfillment of an obligation as Jews, does not add or detract from their efforts. First, they exhibited extreme courage. They risked their lives for others. Even just for that, they are deserving of honor and appreciation. Second, they acted where many others did not, for one reason or another. They stood out among the many who did not follow their lead. And for this, they are also worthy of honor and appreciation.
As a side note, I would like to note that even in concerning the decorations and citations awarded to IDF soldiers, an argument was once raised that no one deserves praise for having fulfilled his duty, but I am intimately familiar with the failure of this argument. Even though the decorations and citations were awarded to those soldiers who fulfilled their duty, such as the duty not to leave a wounded soldier on the battlefield, praise is due both for courage to risk one’s life and for displaying such valor under circumstances in which many do not.
The establishment of a system of recognition and benefits for Jews who saved Jews cannot be undertaken offhandedly, but must be done with meticulous care and attention. When the time comes to do this, I would like to suggest the underlying principles for recognizing a person who played an active role in the Jewish rescue efforts worthy of recognition. For now, I will mention only two principles. First, since Israel has not established an organized system, the right thing to do would be to establish it now, to express appreciation for any Jew who risked his life to rescue Jews, even if he has already passed away. Second, I would like to see a policy of lenient, and not stringent, conditions in defining and verifying the factual evidence.
I therefore warmly recommend, without any reservation, the acceptance of the proposal by the Committee to Recognize the Heroism of Jewish Rescuers During the Holocaust, to embark on the official process for the legislation and establishment of a system of recognition and benefits, on par with the system of recognition and benefits for Righteous Gentiles, that would recognize Jews who risked their lives to save the lives of other Jews during the Holocaust.
Respectfully and with warm regards,
Prof. Asa Kasher
Professor Emeritus of Professional Ethics and Philosophy of Practice and Professor Emeritus of Philosophy